Italy's last old master gets his first major exhibition in 40 years

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For the fashionable gentleman in the mid-18th century, the ultimate style statement was to have a portrait painted by Pompeo Batoni, the most famous artist in Rome. British aristocrats on the "Grand Tour" of Italy flocked to his studio to sit for him. But in the first comprehensive exhibition of the work of "Italy's last old master" in 40 years, the National Gallery will aim to show that he was more than just a society portrait painter. He was also an accomplished painter of historical, allegorical and religious scenes, which he recreated in a palette of vivid colours.

The show of around 60 works which opens in February 2008, marking 300 years since Batoni's birth, brings together works from public and private collections across Europe and America, including the Vatican, the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as from National Trust houses in the UK.

Born in Lucca, Italy, in 1708, Batoni left for Rome at the age of 19, where he became known for his drawings of antiquities. By the 1740s, he had built up a reputation as a history painter. It was not until the 1750s, however, that his fame as a portrait painter spread. Between 1750 and 1760 alone, he painted the portraits of nearly 60 British visitors to the Eternal City, including an almost comic picture of Scottish aristocrat Colonel the Hon William Gordon, draped in swathes of tartan in a pose reminiscent of an ancient Roman.

One of the exhibition highlights is the Portrait of Sir Humphrey Morice, which for many years hung yellowing in Norton Conyers, the grand Yorkshire house that was the inspiration for Mr Rochester's Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, where it is part of the collection of Lord and Lady Graham. In a rare move for a work from a private collection, the National Gallery has restored the portrait of Sir Humphrey, the son of one of London's leading slave merchants and a renowned animal lover, which is thought to have been responsible for the trend for sitters to adopt a reclining pose. It will hang near a playful painting of Diana and Cupid which Sir Humphrey commissioned from Batoni. "It is dazzling," said the curator, Dawson Carr. He added: "Batoni was the greatest painter of the 18th century in Rome. It was almost a must that one would sit for Batoni to bring back as a souvenir."

Another notable painting in the exhibition is The Marriage of Saint Catherine with Saints Jerome and Lucy, which Batoni painted on spec. The work currently hangs in the Italian President's official residence, the Palazzo Quirinale, and is rarely seen by the public.

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